The City of Calgary recently completed a new document called The Guidebook for Great Communities, with the caption of “Building Great Communities for Everyone”.
The document is 131 pages long. It’s hardly what I would call a guide. When I think of a guide, I think of guidelines – something like the 10 commandments. Not a book. Maybe more like a brochure.
It turns out that the Guide is not only guidelines for future development, but in fact will become yet another long legal document guiding development in our city.
The push is on to delay approval of the Guide for large communities. Read more here.
The name is for sure misleading. I’ve known the document for a long time, but always assumed it was a non-statutory (my bad) plain English document meant to help community groups and the general public better understand how Calgary communities will evolve in the future.
The devil is in the details when it comes to building a city. The more detailed the document, the more people will think it is the work of the devil. In large part because everyone has a different idea of what makes a great community.
Some will think it is a pedestrianized community with lots of amenities and a variety of housing types. Others will think of it as a real estate community with only large single family homes where you drive to your daily amenities. Some will want to live in the city center, others on the outskirts.
There is not one guide that will make everyone happy. The city already has the Municipal Development Plan (which was recently updated). It all has the same content and is a statutory document. There are also local and regional development plans.
I believe this manual is just paperwork. No more bureaucracy.
I wonder why the City of Calgary would want to add another document to the planning process. The average Calgarian isn’t going to read or understand the Guide, so what was the point? The NIMBYs will hate the document because it wants to add density to every neighborhood in Calgary and the YIMBYs will love it because it promotes more density. There is no planning document that will be adopted by everyone. It will always be too much for some and not enough for others.
No matter how hard you try to create a document that will anticipate everyone’s wants, needs, and concerns, a group of people will be upset, protest, and call for any new development they don’t like.
Let the protest begin …
Since I have been a big supporter of adding more diversity and density to our neighborhoods, I was surprised when I received an email from a Facebook group called “Calgarians for Great Communities”.
They rise up against the Guide’s supposed promotion of greater densification in each community. They asked me what I thought of the document. After reviewing the reviews on their site, their big concern is that planners and politicians are trying to eliminate single-family homes in established neighborhoods. This is where most of them live.
FYI: I think this is the same group that purchased the entire Calgary Herald front page on Monday March 15 to share their concerns: lack of meaningful consultation, zoning issues, community development plans and unique approach and advisers must listen.
I don’t believe this to be true. The guide aims to create many different communities that will appeal to different people. Calgary is now home to over 200 different communities, each catering to the needs and wants of different Calgarians.
The group also claims there was limited community engagement. In fact, the document has been in the public domain in various drafts for several years now.
Peers say …
I sent it to a few urban development colleagues in other cities to see what they thought.
After spending 20 minutes reviewing the document, one said, “Someone has spent a lot of money to create another common sense guide to general urban development. This will not help some neighbors not wanting more density next to their house.
Another said: “This seems like a rather intimidating read, I wonder who will read it and understand it, let alone the goals. ”
I loved the comment from one reviewer who said that “the document reads like a basic textbook of academic planning and urban design disconnected from Calgary’s landscape, economy, demographics and values. As such, it could be applicable to any city.
Druh says …
I found Advisor Druh Farrell’s blog useful. She says: “It is important to keep in mind that the Guide does not make any changes to your community on its own. The guide is designed to work in conjunction with a new local area plan / area redevelopment plan. The guide sets the stage for what communities need to be complete, but it is the local plan that guides redevelopment in your particular community.
So really nothing has changed? So does this document create more confusion and more bureaucracy?
But I’m still a little confused because she also says, “This policy document will serve, just as the name suggests, as a guide to building great communities.
When I read “guide”, I think of something that is open, non-binding, rather a suggestion, something that is political or statutory in nature.
Personally, I think few guidelines could have been better than a guide. Here are my four suggested guidelines:
- Calgary will encourage the diversification of all Calgary neighborhoods in a strategic way that makes better use of existing infrastructure, amenities and services.
- Diversification includes a variety of housing types and densities, a mix of residential, commercial and institutional uses, better public spaces, and increased mobility options (walking, cycling, transit and roads).
- The City will engage the community on major new developments (choose a dollar value or total square footage of development), but the engagement period will be limited to six months. And there will be no appeal process once a decision is made.
- The City will try to balance community needs with city-wide needs, but ultimately city-wide needs will outweigh those of the community.
In fact, on page 126 of the guide, you can list the eight goals for building great communities. I think they could be the guidelines and remove the book.
Objectives for large communities
- Promote varied, inclusive and affordable housing options.
- Provide opportunities to access nearby goods, services and amenities.
- Provide opportunities to come together and participate in civic, artistic, cultural and entertainment activities, in public and private spaces.
- Provide varied and inclusive spaces and facilities for nearby recreation, games and outdoor activities.
- Provide spaces that promote a sense of belonging and that are designed for everyone.
- Ensure that natural spaces, biodiversity and ecological functions are protected, restored and valued.
- Foster and support prosperity through various economic opportunities at various scales.
- Support the use of existing streets, services and buildings to reduce the need for new infrastructure.
The Guide for Large Communities tries too hard to be everything for everyone. In the process, it doesn’t help anyone understand the City’s vision to create a variety of great communities in which to live, work and play. Definitely not the average Calgarian.
I remember one of my university professors telling me “the challenge is to write about something complex, in a clear and concise way”.
When it comes to writing planning documents, less is more. Or, dare I say, the less dense the document, the better.
Full disclosure: I have lived in an infill in West Hillhurst which has been one of the city’s most active infill communities for over 25 years. And one of the things I have observed is that the diversification and densification of a community takes place over several decades, it is not something that happens overnight. I’ve seen the benefits of the changes, new play areas, more families, full schools, and more shops and services – of course, there are more traffic and parking issues, but that’s not the case. really not a big deal for me.
- White has been a champion of Calgary communities for over 30 years. He has served on the City of Calgary Planning Commission, as well as on numerous municipal councils and committees. He has written extensively on urban issues and design, as a columnist for CBC Calgary, Calgary Herald, Condo Living and Galleries West magazines, as well as LiveWire Calgary.